(Please read James 3:13-18)
The Scriptures declare, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28). The words “wisdom” and “knowledge” and “understanding” are sometimes used synonymously. There is, however, a shade of difference in the meaning of each word:
- 1) “wisdom” has to do with a right apprehension of God, and of God’s truth.
- 2) “knowledge” speaks of having information about the multiplicity of facts about the universe.
- 3) “understanding” has to do with the correct use of knowledge.
A person may have a doctor’s degree from one of the finest universities, and yet be lacking in basic understanding about human nature, and about the events that transpire around us.
The purpose of the Book of Proverbs is to impart wisdom (Proverbs 1:2-4). In chapter 1, wisdom and folly are contrasted: Wisdom is “godly conduct.” Folly is “wickedness.” One can have great knowledge of facts about nature, history, art, sociology, economics, etc.—and still be a fool (a wicked person) in God’s sight. And so the writer of Proverbs encourages us to seek wisdom from God in order to discern good and evil ways.
In the Bible, wisdom is not primarily an intellectual matter. It is basically a moral matter. The “wise” man is not one who knows the most about science and about literature, but the person who knows how to order his life in obedience to God’s will. Moses told the Children of Israel (while camped on the plains of Moab just east of the Jordan), that he had taught them God’s commandments, and then he says, “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding” (Deuteronomy 4:6).
The word “wisdom” (in the New Testament) generally denotes “the quality of spiritual discernment.” One who is “wise” has the ability to see clearly what is right, and has the courage to act accordingly. One Jewish girl who had become a Christian, had to choose between a financial fortune, and Christ. When her father died, he left her $450,000 on the condition that she would give up her Christian faith. If she would not give up her faith, she was to receive a mere $5. The young woman chose to remain a Christian. It cost her a fortune, but she chose to be true to Christ. Was she wise, or was she foolish?
The truly wise Christian (instead of being arrogant and bitter) will manifest a good life—a life of beautiful and noble conduct. James 3:13 says, “Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? Let him show out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom.” The all-pervading characteristic of the good life (according to verse 13) is meekness—the quality of humility and patience and submissiveness. When Paul speaks about the thinking of the ancient Greek philosophers and teachers—he calls it “the wisdom of men” (1 Corinthians 2:5). Unconverted teachers tended to be sophisticated and smart. There is a certain cleverness about their approach. There is a tendency to be proud that one has learned so much. Teachers of God’s truth (by way of contrast) are persons who have been converted and are indwelled by the Holy Spirit—and are not to be proud because they have learned so much, but humbled because they don’t know more!
The “wise man and endued with knowledge” (verse 13) refers to one who has an expert knowledge in certain fields. It can refer to a man skilled in farming, or to a capable mechanic, or to a housewife who is an expert at cooking tasty meals, or to one who is a gifted Bible teacher. James says that a truly wise Christian can be an expert in many areas of achievement, but his life will be characterized by meekness instead of arrogance.
James cautions that there are two kinds of wisdom. There are two different ways of living out the practical duties of life. There is a worldly, carnal wisdom—and a helpful, spiritual wisdom. There is a true heavenly wisdom, but there is also a counterfeit wisdom. In James 3:14-16, James describes and then denounces the false wisdom. In James 3:17-18, James describes and then commends the wisdom that is heavenly in its origin.
1. False Wisdom Denounced (James 3:14-16)
The early church had its quota of ambition seekers who acted out of envy and stirred up strife, and brought on confusion of every kind. These were often intelligent people, but their cleverness manifested the wrong kind of wisdom. False wisdom is from below. It has several characteristics.
Verse 14 says, “But if ye have bitter envying and strife in your hearts, glory not, and lie not against the truth.” The evidences of false wisdom are “bitter envying and strife.” “Envying” denotes a fierce desire to promote one’s own opinion, and a harsh and resentful attitude toward others whom God may be using in a greater manner than He is using us. “Strife” conveys the thought of selfish ambition and party spirit. It describes the disposition of one who constantly struggles to forward his own selfish interests.
The words “bitter envying and strife” (verse 14) can best be translated “harshly jealous” and “selfishly ambitious.” False wisdom is characterized by harsh jealousy and selfish ambition.
- 1) We are to do our work out of a love for the Lord and for the souls of men, not out of an intense love for ourselves, and for what glory we can get out of it.
- 2) We are to rejoice when God is using others in a greater manner than He seems to be using us.
- 3) There must be no feeling of ill-will toward those who can teach and preach and do things more effectively than we can.
If any of the above wrong attitudes have gripped us, we have become victims of a false wisdom, and such wrong attitudes are a “lie against the truth.” We can speak the truth and bring a message that is biblically correct—but if bitterness and self-seeking attitudes accompany our message—there is a sense in which the truth of the message is canceled out by the unspiritual state of the speaker.
Verse 15: “This wisdom descendeth not from above, but is earthly, sensual, and devilish.” The kind of “wisdom” described in verse 14 is “earthly.” It is not from above. It belongs to the earth beneath, not to the heaven above. It is devoted to earthly goals and fitted for earthly minds. It does not belong to the heavenly realm.
The word “sensual” means that it is unspiritual (even animal-like). It belongs to the natural world, not to the spiritual world. Something that is “sensual” is in no way related to the Spirit of God. The word “devilish” suggests that the false wisdom described in verse 14 is demon-like and not God-like. The kinds of attitudes described in verse 14 (harsh jealousy and selfish ambition) belong not to heaven, and in a sense not to earth, but to hell. Such attitudes are devilish rather than divine. I have heard of heated debates between “brethren” that apparently sounded like noise from an assembly of demon-possessed men.
Verse 16: “For where envying and strife is, there is confusion and every evil work.” The inevitable result of the kind of “wisdom” where the spirit of jealousy and selfish ambition prevails will be confusion, and every kind of evil deed. There will be disorder in the church, disharmony between brethren, and all other kinds of wickedness. When people are arrogant and boastful, and noisy and stormy, and constantly try and push themselves forward—everything is agitated and the church lacks stability and harmony and a quiet atmosphere. Whenever we see quarreling and party spirit, we may know that the wisdom behind it is not of God, but is demon-like.
The false wisdom just described (James 3:14-16) needs to be avoided by all means. Such “wisdom” needs to be replaced by another wisdom—a kind of wisdom which is “from above.”
2. True Wisdom Commended (James 3:17-18)
True “wisdom” is a gift from God. It comes down from above. It is the ability to know what is right and what is wrong; it is the capacity to distinguish between what is important and what is not important; it is the quality of being upright and holy without becoming self-righteous.
True wisdom has eight specific characteristics. Verse 17 names some of them: “But the wisdom that is from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”
The wisdom that comes from above is first “pure.” The word “pure” here does not refer only to sexual purity. It means “undefiled and free from self interest.” It speaks of the absence of any sinful attitude or motive. One who has true wisdom is cleansed from ulterior motives. He is free from the emotions and goals that were described in verse 14. The word “first” means that purity (freedom from selfish motives) is the primary and most fundamental quality of true wisdom.
True wisdom is also “peaceable.” The word “peaceable” means that it delights in peace, and it seeks to promote peace (an inner state of mind which is not quarrelsome and contentious). The wisdom which is from above will dispose a person to live in peace with others. True wisdom produces right relationships between persons. If there is quarreling in your home, it is from the devil and not from God. If there is loud, noisy disagreement in a church council meeting, it is from the devil, not from God.
True wisdom is “gentle.” This speaks of reasonableness and courtesy. A person possessed with true wisdom is understanding and considerate and warm and friendly. He is not sarcastic and bitter. Paul says he was gentle like a nurse (1 Thessalonians 2:7). The servant of the Lord must not strive, but be gentle unto all men (2 Timothy 2:24). One who possesses true wisdom is forbearing and considerate in the demands made upon others. He knows how to forgive just as the Lord has forgiven him.
True wisdom is “easy to be entreated.” The phrase means that one who possesses true wisdom is approachable. He is not beyond appeal. He is open to other points of view. “Easy to be entreated” describes one who is ready to consider all sides of the case. He is willing to yield (if he can do it in good conscience), when he is shown a better way. There are a number of persons most of us would like to have helped (in the past)—by making constructive suggestions to them—but it was no use, because the mind was made up, the habits were fixed, and the person was unapproachable. (Such an unapproachable attitude is characteristic of the wisdom that is earthly and sensual and devilish). The person possessed with false wisdom is obstinate and unwilling to submit to the suggestion of another.
Heavenly wisdom is also “full of mercy.” The word “mercy” speaks of compassion and pity shown toward those who are miserable and needy. It is a characteristic of God himself (Psalm 86:5; Psalm 100:5). One who is “full of mercy” has pity for those in trouble. The Greek construction implies that the pity is even for those whose troubles were brought on by their own carelessness and misdeeds.
True wisdom is full of “good fruits.” The phrase speaks of kind actions and helpful deeds—especially toward those who are to be pitied. One who has stumbled, needs loving help—not indifference and cold scorn. The “mercy” which God produces in the individual, is not merely an emotion. It is not merely feeling sorry for someone. We can never say we have truly pitied, until we have helped the person who is the object of our pity. The Greek words “full of mercy and good fruits” speak of a compassion which issues in good deeds.
Heavenly wisdom is “without partiality“—a phrase which means “unambiguous” and “straightforward.” The Greek word used here does not appear at any other place in the New Testament. One who is “without partiality” is certain of what he believes and says. He doesn’t know everything about everything, but when he speaks, he knows what he is talking about. His convictions are undivided. He is not trying to please the world and to please God at the same time. His loyalties are undivided. One possessed with true wisdom has clear convictions and abides by them. He is like Isaiah, when he says in Isaiah 50:7, “I have set my face like a flint.” And so you see—one who has true wisdom has convictions and he stands by them. But at the same time, he is easy to be entreated—he is charitable toward those who disagree.
The man who has true wisdom is not like a weather-vane, turning whichever way the wind blows. There are some who think it is clever never to make up one’s mind about anything. But one who possesses true wisdom knows what he believes, chooses his course, and then abides by it! He is not wavering; he is not hesitant; he is not vacillating.
Heavenly wisdom is “without hypocrisy.” These words speak of one who is sincere, genuine, and thoroughly honest. He doesn’t put on an outward disguise to conceal his real motives. What the person pretends to be—that he is.
A careful check will reveal that all eight of the qualities just named, were without exception, marks of Jesus Christ. Jesus is the embodiment of the “wisdom of God.” The person who is wise and understanding regarding God’s truth—will have these qualities in his life, and will down through the years, increasingly manifest purity, peaceableness, gentleness, approachableness, pity, clear convictions, and a genuine testimony for Christ.
Verse 18 concludes: “And the fruit of righteousness is sown in peace of them that make peace.” God’s wisdom is intended to change our lives and to work in us “a harvest of righteousness.” “Righteousness” is “conformity to the will of God.” The law of sowing and reaping applies in the realm of wisdom, just as it does in every other area of life. Acquiring “true wisdom” is not something that “just happens.” It requires much labor. There is a sowing, cultivation, and finally, the harvest. One who strives after, and prays for, true wisdom—will see good results. Divine wisdom will make us peacemakers. Instead of trying to lash out blows at others, we will seek to scatter blessings. Our thoughts and actions will more and more become godly and peaceful and kind. The peaceful manner in which we do our work and share the Christian message is almost as important as the truth itself which we proclaim.
Proverbs 3:13 says, “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding.” All of us lack wisdom in some ways. We need to ask God for His wisdom (as James reminds us in James 1:5). True wisdom is bound up with doing the will of God. And if we reject any part of the Word of God, we forfeit true wisdom. Jeremiah remarks, “How do ye say, We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us? . . . Lo, they have rejected the word of the Lord; and what wisdom is in them?” (Jeremiah 8:8-9).